The state Supreme Court made the right call this week when it left in place a lower court's ruling that the teacher tenure system at California public schools does not violate students’ constitutional rights. But even though they’re not unconstitutional, the tenure laws are still problematic, and the Legislature needs to fix them.
The case, Vergara vs. California, was brought by school reformers on behalf of nine California public school students. It argued, among other things, that the laws awarded tenure too easily and then made it too difficult to dismiss “grossly ineffective” teachers. The plaintiffs won at the trial level but lost on appeal. On Monday, the state Supreme Court declined to review the appellate decision.
The big surprise is that the lawsuit got as far as it did. Appellate Justice Roger W. Boren summed it up best: “The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are ‘a good idea.’”
The teacher protection laws are riddled with problems. They too often allow uncaring or incompetent teachers to stay in their jobs, which has a direct effect on learning and engagement. But the lawsuit’s contention — that such rules were so harmful to California’s students as to be unconstitutional — bordered on the silly. Even supporters of the suit estimated that the number of teachers who ought to be fired was just a few percent of the entire educational force. Of all the things that prevent California students from succeeding — lack of preschool seats, large class sizes, minimal physical and arts education and so forth — teacher protections are hardly the worst offenders.
But “hardly the worst” is not a ringing endorsement. California’s tenure and seniority laws do tend to protect the worst teachers at the expense of students. The Legislature, always too obliging to the desires of the teachers unions, must gather its strength on behalf of the state’s children to reform bad laws.